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Has Kentucky football turned the corner from historical loser to perennial winner?

Quarterback Sawyer Smith (12) has a chance to help UK show it is now a consistent winning program. (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

It was Nov. 3, 2012. The University of Kentucky football team walked out onto the turf field at Commonwealth Stadium for the last home game of the season. Senior Day. The last game of their career for many of these football players. As the players poured out of the tunnel onto the field they expected to hear the roar of tens of thousands of Kentucky fans cheering them on. What they actually heard was some weak applause as the estimated 20,000 or so die-hard UK fans applauded their endurance if not their accomplishments.

It was one of the darkest days of many dark days in Kentucky Football history. Head Coach Joker Phillips’ last team at the University of Kentucky was about to reach an all-time low. They were about to receive a whipping from an SEC team that would ordinarily be the team receiving the whipping, not administering it.

But on this day Vanderbilt coach James Franklin pulled out all the stops as his Commodores rolled over the Wildcats 40-0. For this Senior Day Kentucky could do nothing well. Although they had some capable players — like Avery Williamson — they didn’t have enough.

Recruiting didn’t seem to be Joker Phillips’ strong suit. Neither was coaching. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders couldn’t get his offense to score. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter couldn’t get his defensive team to stop the scoring. Such was the state of affairs for UK Football seven short years ago.

At that moment UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart knew he had to make a tough decision. The University and Joker Phillips had to part ways. Most of the fans had abandoned ship and after three seasons it appeared that a lot of the players may have abandoned ship also. What was left of the ship had been sunk by the Commodores on that fateful day in November.

But from the ashes of that defeat would rise the hiring of a new football coach. A hard-nosed defensive coordinator from Florida State named Mark Stoops. A football coach that cut his teeth playing football in the state of Ohio. One that had coached for many of the great coaches of the day, including Florida State Head Coach Jimbo Fisher.

Stoops had a plan and he began executing that plan. But the wins didn’t come easy. Two in the first season, then five in each of the next two seasons. But then the plan started to gain some traction. In 2016 Stoop’s team went 7-6 overall with a bowl appearance. In 2017 he produced the same results, 7-6 overall with a bowl appearance. Now the University was beginning to see some fruit from their long years of patience.

In 2018, playing with all players that Stoops had recruited, he saw his Kentucky Wildcats finish 10-3 with a bowl win over a perennial Big Ten power program, the James Franklin-led Penn State Nittany Lions. It was ironic, to say the least, that the coach who drove the last nail in UK’s coffin in 2012 was the one to see them rise from the ashes of that November debacle to finish with one of the best overall records in school history.

So the question I ask you, the reader is, has Kentucky Football turned the corner from historical loser to perennial winner? Does a fourth quarter loss to the Florida Gators in a game they should have won mean that Kentucky is still the “same old Kentucky”?

Some would say yes. I would say no.

Mark Stoops recruiting classes in 2018 and 2019 ranked No. 30 or better in the nation according to most recruiting services. His 2020 recruiting class currently sits at No. 22. He continues to develop players into high level NFL prospects. Look no further than Josh Allen, Benny Snell and the plethora of defensive backs led by Lonnie Johnson to show that Stoops and Company can develop talent — and top notch high school players are noticing. Stoops has owned the state of Kentucky in recruiting the last few years. He has a five-game win streak over South Carolina, a four-game win streak over the Missouri Tigers and has finished 2nd, 3rd and 2nd, respectively, in the SEC East Division over the last three seasons.

Those are unheard of accomplishments for a program that has an historical winning percentage below .500.
One game doesn’t make a season. One game doesn’t define a career and one game certainly doesn’t show the trend of a program. What shows the trend of a program is reaching milestones that have never been reached before, attracting talent that would have never considered UK before and winning games against SEC opponents at an astounding clip.

So in answering the question about has UK turned the corner, it appears to me that they have. In looking back to where the program has come from that bleak November day in 2012 to the celebration that occurred after the Citrus Bowl win in 2019 it seems like winning is starting to become a more natural process for these most recent Kentucky teams.

Will it continue? Who knows. One would think that if Mark Stoops sticks with the process and the University sticks with Stoops it should. But there are no guarantees. Just ask the Tennessee Volunteers. They are still trying to find that magic bullet and they haven’t found it yet. They have gone through three head coaches and had three winning seasons over the last decade and are sitting at 1-2 with losses to Georgia State and BYU in this 2019 season.

Hopefully UK fans will take the long view of the football program, realize how far Mark Stoops has brought this program and trust the process and the coaches. So far it looks like a winner to me.

11 comments

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  1. I agree, Stoops has sure made his mark so far. UK needs a big road win here for momentum.

  2. Still not time to pop any corks…..the corner has possibly been turned but don’t feel we are there yet. Believe Stoops still slightly below .500 WP. A W last weekend would have been further evidence that maybe we are there. A L tomorrow would reinforce “not so fast”. Hope the Cats are focused and ready. More importantly, I hope the Stoops/Gran offensive machine is primed and playing to win.

  3. Mike you said the same thing last year. Good grief Charley Brown

    1. Is that all you have to contribute?

      1. At least I don’t repeat myself

  4. Why are we even talking about this at this point in the season? It would be premature to make a call on this team one way or the other. They have the opportunity to write the script in a favorable way, but they have to do it with wins on the field, not speculation off of it.

  5. If the football program has turned a significant corner is a long term proposition, and the stage of the current season and the events of the most recent game are not the primary factors.

    I believe this program is in a process of turning a major corner, but I would say more than a corner, this program is in the process of making a complete U-Turn with a huge tractor-trailer rig in congested traffic on a two lane road. It is happening, but it will take more time to complete the maneuver.

    It took this program generations of poor performance to arrive at the position Coach Stoops encountered upon his arrival. This is only the 7th season (1/3 a generation) of this turn around operation. There are several more years of diligent work remaining to complete this U-Turn, and there is no guarantee that traffic and other conditions may over power Stoops’ determination to turn this rig around.

    1. Complete U-turn or turn back? First half good ole UK football.

  6. This is why this program has not completed a turn yet. There are still bumps ahead and today was one of them.

    Stay with Stoops and the turn around will be completed over the next 7 to 10 years. It is a long term project.

  7. We won’t know the answer to this for another couple of years, regardless of the outcome of this season. Too bad Hornet won’t be around to talk about it.

    1. I am going to miss him as well.

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